Midterm Math Works Against Democrats With Senate at Stake
By Susan Milligan
Joe Biden can thank record voter turnout, women, Black and Latino Americans, young people and voters eager to get Donald Trump out of office for the Democratic president’s 2020 victory. Unfortunately for Biden and his Democratic Party, the voters expected to turn out this fall will be fewer, older, more likely to be white – and eager to take out their frustrations on the party in charge.
Those historical voting patterns are a big reason why Democrats face such daunting challenges this fall as they struggle to hang onto razor-thin majorities in Congress. And it has Democrats scrambling to find ways to tweak the turnout machine in key states, where even a shift of a single percentage point in a voter group could decide who controls the Senate next year.
Not only are minority and young voters typically less likely to vote in midterm elections, but the people who are inclined to turn out are in a mood to punish – and that means voting out incumbents, says Matt Grossman, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
“It’s better to say that you’ve done something,” if you are the party in power, “but you can’t expect that to overwhelm the basic dynamic – and that is that people are more motivated by something that has happened that they didn’t like than that they did like,” Grossman says.
Record high jobs creation? That’s not resonating much with voters upset about inflation that is at a 40-year high, experts say. Record numbers of Black women being named to judicial posts by the Biden administration? The voters who are thrilled by that development can’t match the motivation of parents convinced their K-12 children are being made to feel guilty in the classroom for America’s history of slavery and racism.
An anticipated Supreme Court opinion undoing guaranteed abortion rights could well propel disaffected Democratic voters to the polls in some areas of the country, making a pivotal difference in key races, analysts say. With the governor poised to be the one-person roadblock to abortion bans in several states, pro-abortion rights voters may be more motivated to turn out, casting votes for Democrats up and down the ballot.
But Democrats still suffer from basic math that disadvantages the party in midterms. Voters 18-29 made up 17% of the 2020 electorate and voted heavily for Biden. In 2014, the last midterm where a Democrat was president, young voters made up just 13% of the electorate.
In several states – notably Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona – small shifts could decide whether Biden will have a Democratic or GOP-run Senate next year. But the peculiar natures of those states’ electorates and candidates could make this fall far less predictable, analysts and political operatives say.
In Georgia, slight upticks in turnout by women and Black voters helped Biden eke out a dramatic 2020 victory there and helped put Democrats Sen. Raphael Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff over the top in 2021 runoffs, flipping control of the Senate to Democrats.
If typical midterm trends stayed the same, Warnock would likely lose to a Republican. But “there are a couple of wild cards in the mix here” that make the race far more competitive, says political science professor Alan Abramowitz, an expert on polling and elections at Emory University.
Black turnout – which typically dips in a midterm – might be unusually higher because both Warnock and Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor, are Black. Abrams is also widely credited with get-out-the-vote efforts that helped elect Biden, Warnock and Ossoff.
Secondly, Abramowitz says, incumbent Democrats could have someone to run against, if Trump – who was an early endorser of GOP nominee Herschel Walker for the Senate – makes himself very visible in the campaign.
“The more prominent a role Trump plays in these elections, the better it probably is for Democrats,” who would be more inspired to vote if their old nemesis is around, Abramowitz says.
In Arizona, Republicans are in great shape on paper, political experts say, since GOP voters are much more likely to turn out in midterm elections. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is defending his job, and the race for governor in the Grand Canyon State is open.
But again, the ghosts of the 2020 election – and repeated lies that it was stolen from Trump – could mix things up, says Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Arizona Republican consultant.
Trump was “the greatest turnout machine that has ever existed, at least in my lifetime here,” Coughlin says. And several leading GOP candidates this fall are continuing to push the falsity that Biden did not legitimately win the election, which could bring those Democrats back to the polls, he says.
“As we’ve observed many times out here, Republicans are being their own worst enemy. The focus on election fraud is clearly not a general election winner in Arizona,” Coughlin says. Despite the numbers – Coughlin predicts an 8-point GOP turnout advantage in the midterms – such talk by GOP candidates might turn off independent voters critical to a general election win in Arizona, he says.
“They are giving Democrats a giant opportunity to prevail in the general,” he says.
In Wisconsin, Democrats have a rare chance at a pickup as they seek to topple incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson. They also have a tough race in keeping Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in office. A loss there would mean Republicans would have a trifecta, control of both chambers of the state legislature and the governorship.
Biden won Wisconsin last year by a mere six-tenths of a percentage point, so turnout among party loyalists could determine both the Senate and gubernatorial races. And midterm cycle trends would tend to give Republicans that tiny edge they need.
Black turnout, especially in the Democratic-heavy area around Milwaukee, tends to drop off in midterm cycles, as does the student vote, says David Canon, a political science professor and expert on elections at the University of Wisconsin.
One “wild card” that could make a difference is if Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is running in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat, prevails, Canon says. Barnes is Black and from Milwaukee and might be able to wrest a critical number of additional votes from those residents, Canon says.
“Historically, Wisconsin has usually seen a midterm election that is on balance more Republican than Democratic,” says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll.
The big exception, he says, was 2018, when an anti-Trump sentiment brought out more Democrats. But with Trump not on the ballot in 2022, the 2018 blip in Democratic turnout is less likely to repeat, Franklin says.
Democrats believe they have a solid case against Johnson, who has advocated repealing the Affordable Care Act (an issue that helped get Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin win in an earlier race) and voted to reject the slate of electors making Biden president. That could not only motivate Democrats but alienate moderate Republicans, Democratic operatives believe.
The strategy will have to include finding ways to reach a typical midterm audience, says a Democratic Wisconsin political consultant. That means using older forms of communication – such as broadcast TV channels, instead of social media – to connect with older voters who don’t get their information online, the consultant said.
In many of the pivotal races, big issues – inflation, energy prices, the outcome of the war in Ukraine and the prospects of the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion being overturned by the Supreme Court – could motivate certain voter groups to show up at the polls.
But for Democrats, desperate to avoid a complete GOP takeover of Congress, math is the enemy.